The kernel that became “Anthem” started percolating about five years ago. Hawley had published his previous novel, “Before the Fall,” with Hachette, and Michael Pietsch, the company’s chief executive, was eager to sign him up for another. Hawley’s editor had just left the company, so Pietsch offered to edit the book himself.
“You could do worse than the guy who edited ‘Infinite Jest,’” Hawley said of Pietsch.
During the summer of 2019, Hawley was planning to work on the book during a two-month family vacation in Europe. At a bookstore in London, he collected a stack of novels that had been “eureka moments” for him, he said, including “The New York Trilogy,” by Paul Auster; “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” by Milan Kundera; “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Gabriel García Márquez; and “Song of Solomon,” by Toni Morrison.
“And now you’re traveling around with a box of books, and you’re like, ‘Why didn’t I just buy two?’” he recalled. “But it felt critical that I get them all.”
“Anthem” is woven together using a number of contemporary threads, mostly seen through the eyes of teenagers who are battling to save themselves and one another. One of the main characters, Simon, is the scion of a pharmaceutical fortune made by selling opioids. A culture war descends into armed conflict, in a way that reads like it must be a riff on Jan. 6 — except that Hawley wrote it the previous October.
“One of the ideas explored in the book is what unifies us now when there are so many things that tear us apart,” Pietsch said. “Imagine being a kid, hearing that the oceans are dying, that the bees are dying, reading about the opioid epidemic, seeing these political battles and reading about sexual predation. This sense that the world you’re growing into is being destroyed before your eyes, and what’s going to be there for you? What must that be like, and what can you do?”
The book feels cinematic and at times fantastical. An insurrectionist points a gun at one of the protagonists and says, “There is no God,” and then a missile explodes behind him. An enchanted Amazon truck magically supplies materials for our heroes’ needs, whether it’s to hogtie an adversary or stitch up a wound.
“The magic realism of the book,” Hawley said, “it was a relief, because magic realism has a way of making ugly things beautiful. Think about Márquez and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude,’ and the amount of tragedy in that book that’s offset by the whimsy, and the beauty of just not knowing what could happen next.”